Interview by SARA SCIALPI — Photos by MARGARET DUROW
Real, sincere, evocative, intense. These seem to be adequate words to describe, nonchalantly summarise, and only partly express, the emotional depth and artistic weight of Margaret Durow’s works – works that escape the stereotypes of the ever-so-widespread and passively-enjoyable ‘pretty pictures’ populating the Web. Behind each image there’s indeed a story, not just pretty colours and shapes mixed casually to form a cheap postmodern pastiche. Sometimes a deep meaning hides behind them – the fragments of an entire existence. And this, as she herself states, is nothing but vital. To us, Margaret’s art appears to be irreparably double-sided: she points to an intimistic, private and personally meaningful kind of representation, but in the most uninterested and spontaneous of ways. The strength of her pictures’ succeeds in engaging the viewer in an unavoidably touching way, appealing to their sensibility and awareness of life’s joys and miseries. Individual but universal, thoughtful yet also poignant – which is exactly what art should be.
SARA S. — What does photography mean to you, and what’s the purpose of the photographer as an artist, in your opinion?
MARGARET D. — I often get this urge – obsession – where I need to photograph things around me in a way that makes me remember how I felt. Sometimes this means capturing what is naturally in front of my camera, and sometimes I make conscious decisions about placement, etc. (often using myself in the photo), to create an image that will reflect how I felt. I share my photos to show people how I feel, and because I hope they can make people feel something personal for themselves. I think this is what an artist should do, especially a photographer: take what is inside them and around them and create something out of it to share, so that other people, while experiencing the art/ looking at the photo, can feel the personal meaning it has to the person who made it, but also feel something new and personal for themselves.
SARA S. — You love film pictures, don’t you? Why did you choose film and didn’t go digital? What do you think are the most relevant differences between these two ways of shooting in terms of the emotional impact they have on the things you capture?
MARGARET D. — I love the way film photos look, but I actually enjoy shooting digital more often. Film gets too expensive for me to take photos the way I like to. When I only have my film camera, I feel an annoying pressure to only photograph the most important moments, but I have a hard time deciding what is really important, and want to remember everything, so I can look back later and reflect on what had the most meaning for me. Digital allows me to take photos at every moment of inspiration without worrying about a cost.
But, I think the visual qualities of a digital photo never quite capture the feeling of the moment. When I share my photos with others I want them to match just how I felt at the moment. The visual qualities of film always reflect this so much better, so I like to shoot film whenever I have the money, or I like to make my digital photos have that look.
SARA S. — Can you pick one favourite picture among those you have shot so far and describe the feelings and memories it brings back to your mind?
MARGARET D. — I don’t think I could pick one favorite ever, but this is currently one of them:
MARGARET D. — This was taken not too long ago. Me, George, and a few other good friends were in my hometown, drinking, smoking, laughing, until around 5 AM. I had stopped drinking a couple hours earlier, so I drove me and George to a field in the country where we watched the sunrise, dancing and running around. It was sort of overcast but the clouds were thin enough to turn everything bright orange. Then we realised we were ruining someones beautiful crops so we drove to the lake (Rock Lake). We went down to the area of land that my family and our neighbours own together, called Cedars. The sun turned the shore across the lake orange for a little while, but a storm started moving in. We kept jumping in, swimming around, lightning going off in the distance. It was beautiful and the lake felt like bath water because it has been so hot this summer.
SARA S. — Your black and white pictures are extremely striking, evocative. Some of them are really melancholic, others fascinatingly sad.
MARGARET D. — My favourite is this one:
SARA S. — I think it’s also one of those that enjoyed the most success among your supporters. Can you give us some more specific details about the moment, the model, the conditions in which you shot it? Was it fiction or was he really desperate?
MARGARET D. — Me and George were sitting in one of the summer lake cottages down at Cedars. The sun was setting, pouring through the door and the smoke captured the light so beautifully. We had been together on and off for a few years at this point, a lot of heaviness in our relationship, but even when we weren’t officially ‘together’, we were always best friends, basically together. George used to get really annoyed about me taking too many pictures, especially of him. So just before this photo, I was taking a whole bunch of pictures, because I really wanted to capture that smoke in the light just perfectly, the feeling of that warm summer day coming to a close, until finally George got really annoyed and put his head down like that, hand in hair, and just at this moment he was saying: ‘Stooopppp taakiing picturrrees’. The photo might capture his annoyance, but it also reminded me how much it had hurt me when he got annoyed about me taking pictures. Once I heard another photographer (I wish I could remember who, but I think it was Megan McIsaac), say something along the lines of ‘people keep telling me to just experience something, without realising how much photography has become a part of my experience’. That’s often how I felt with George. I think he realises it now, though, and is (almost) always supportive of me taking photos.
SARA S. — Do you see your pictures more as part of a day-by-day, spontaneous diary or an artistic progression? Is there any constant idea behind all of your works?
MARGARET D. — I think the ideas that come up often in my work are very dependent on my day-by-day feelings. There is a search for balance, but an awareness of everything being a paradox – in me and around me – a strength in vulnerability, heavy feelings/light feelings, meaningless and important… trying to accept this constant change while at the same time trying to make everything last forever. Also, focusing on and presenting my own feelings might sound selfish, but they are what I know and understand the best, and by being aware of them I become aware of how much they are influenced by others, and how deeply I am a part of everything around me.
SARA S. — A picture that makes you laugh and another that makes you want to cry (by any of your favourite artists).
MARGARET D. — Laugh:
MARGARET D. — Cry:
SARA S. — The story behind some of your pictures is the one about your scoliosis. Did art help you go through this discomfort? Is self-portrayal a cathartic device for you?
MARGARET D. — My scoliosis has impacted my life a lot, but the recovery after surgery was especially hard and very long. I was in a wheelchair for a while, so when I could finally stand for a few seconds I photographed my back. Seeing it gave me a feeling of strength. I could look at myself in that state, see and feel how much my scoliosis had affected my life – causing so much pain. But accepting it as a part of me and sharing how I felt with with other people through a photo (even if/when I felt terrible) made me feel empowered. I didn’t have to hide how hard it was for me, I was allowed to feel it, process it, which made me realise it wasn’t just affecting me in negative ways. I was shown so much beauty and strength because of my experiences, especially in other people going through difficult circumstances, and the way people cared for me when I couldn’t take care of myself.
SARA S. — You’ve been featured in several magazines and websites. What would you like to tell young artists who wish this could happen to them?
MARGARET D. — I never sought out to be featured in any magazines or websites, I just started sharing my photos on flickr and started getting emails. I still haven’t submitted my work anywhere, I just continue to put it up on flickr and my website. I’m not sure if what I do is the best to get featured, I think the main thing is posting your work where people can see it and replying to people who are interested in your work (which I’m terrible at!). But I always try to keep my work honest and meaningful to me, so it means a lot to me when people want to hear from me or share my work with others. I always try to get back to everyone eventually, and have ended up with a number of features that way. But it seems to me that a lot of photos that get the most popular now because of sites like Tumblr lack substance, or the meaning doesn’t matter to the people posting it. The context of the photo is often completely ignored, and it is liked just because it is appealing to the eye, because someone else likes it, or it looks nice next to the other pictures on their blog. So my advice is that you can share a part of yourself, with honesty, and people might like that, or they might just like things that are nice to look at. But either way, just share your work and reply to those who enjoy it!